This year marks the 40th anniversary of when John Carpenter’s major breakthrough, Halloween (1978), was first unleashed on audiences; and like a good boogeyman, it doesn’t seem to die as the film itself remains relevant to not only horror fans, but to the general public as well. An attempt to explain this feat can bring a multitude of answers. The critical and financial success of its original theatrical run spurred an entire sub-genre of horror that would dominate the next decade. The heyday of the slasher genre has come and gone, so surely that is not the answer. It could be where Halloween itself has had numerous sequels produced in the time since, sequels whose sole purpose of existence was mainly for the monetary gain of its producers and Hollywood bigwigs. That’s not quite the correct explanation either for the film’s longevity. The reason why John Carpenter’s Halloween has continued to stay popular over the past four decades is that it is just that good. The film manages to set itself apart from its imitators by having a perfect marriage of simple creative elements. It’s largely been hailed for its technical achievements, particularly in its cinematography and musical score. However, before a single shot was filmed, or a note recorded, there was a screenplay.
The plot of Halloween can basically be summed up by its initial title and premise, The Babysitter Murders, in which a small group of babysitting friends is stalked and murdered by a masked madman. This is not a complicated story; there aren’t many turns to take in that regard. The key here is simplicity. The reason why Halloween resonates from a storytelling standpoint is because of the relatability to its characters and settings. That and its monster. The story acts as a playground for exploring its characters and allowing them to interact. They don’t really grow or have traditional character arcs over the course of the film; instead, we learn about them as they collide into one another.
Carpenter co-wrote the screenplay with his then-girlfriend and collaborator, Debra Hill, and it is largely thanks to her contributions that the characters are as relatable as they are, particularly through her dialogue. This is one big part of why the screenplay stands out from its future offspring and clones. Whereas the slasher genre is typically filled with characters conforming to stereotypes as if the filmmakers were going off of a checklist, Halloween’s group of friends (Laurie, Annie, and Lynda) are regular teenagers. They interact together as a real group of friends do, telling jokes that really only appeal to the group. They pick on each other, but they also show compassion towards one another. When Annie is mocking Laura for her lack of dating experience, upon seeing her reaction she instantly feels sympathetic, which she then promptly follows up with advice.
Combined with the suburban setting, these characters exist as avatars for the viewer. Even though Haddonfield, Illinois is a fictional place, the houses and streets look just like everyone else’s. When their homes are invaded it seems like that could happen to anyone. This also extends to their roles as babysitters, which carries a widespread familiarity where most people have either had babysitters or have worked as one. Annie, and to a larger extent Lynda, are not given a rich characterization. They do, however, serve a greater purpose other than just murder fodder for the movie’s monster; they exist to support and flesh out the character of Laurie.
Laurie is a character who appeals to the audience’s insecurities. She is shy, a little awkward, polite, clever but not supercilious, and above all: likable. Ultimately, Laurie is the quintessential final girl. Although she excels in the “girl scout” role, which is a moniker given to her by Annie, she actually covets her friend’s lifestyles. Annie and Lynda are the ones who get to blow off studies to chase boys and get drunk, all while Laurie gets stuck pulling double duty as a babysitter just so her friends can get their rocks off. As mentioned previously, this does not go unnoticed by Annie. Even though she is one who profits from the arrangement, she still tries to push Laurie into being more outgoing, and during the course of the story actually sets Laurie up with her crush.
Laurie’s reaction, of course, is to freak out in embarrassment. She longs for the experiences her friends have, but when pushed towards them she will stay the girl scout. Laurie’s repressed sexuality and rejection of sexual life are character traits that recur throughout the script both figuratively and metaphorically. Unbeknownst to her, despite her issues in finding romance, she actually already has a suitor. During her character introduction, Laurie probably is not thinking of anything much more than romance as she walks to school singing “I Wish I Had You All Alone”, but that will soon change. For Michael Myers, who stands behind her watching as she strolls on with her obliviousness, it was love at first sight.
Michael Myers is a blank canvas, which matches his visage, and as such, no explanation is given as to why he does the things he does. Any shred of evidence can only be taken directly from his actions on the page/screen, but even then it’s still conjecture. Regardless, it is worth the attempt. Years before the series would turn the primary motivator of its monster in a family affair, what motivates Michael Myers in John Carpenter’s Halloween is an infatuation caused by fate and chance. It is fate that Michael escapes Smith’s Grove Sanitarium and returns to Haddonfield almost fifteen years to the day after murdering his older sister in his childhood home, chance that he chooses Laurie after she walks by that same very house, and fate that they will inevitably meet after.
His infatuation is not a common one, of course; instead, it is of a more perverse and violent nature. Michael is a bit of a trickster, and he simply doesn’t want to kill her; he could have made that move at any time. He has to play with her, scare her out of her mind before that happens. It has been stated by many critics/analysts that Halloween should be viewed as a morality tale for teens in which it outlines the dangers of being promiscuous or partaking in drugs/drinking. This is a trope that has become synonymous with the slasher genre, particularly with the Friday the 13th series of films. This doesn’t exactly apply in this case, at least not fully anyway. Yes, the majority of Michael’s victims partake in one or both of these activities; but so does Laurie. In fact, Laurie commits the same exact sin Annie does in this regard with both of them smoking a joint together.
Instead, Annie and Lynda are satellite victims because of their connection to Laurie. That’s not to say Michael doesn’t get any enjoyment out of their deaths. That much is evident when contrasting his behavior and mannerisms (heavy breathing and prolonging the event) in their death scenes vs Bob, who is male and killed quickly. However, Laurie is different for him compared to her friends. The reason being that perhaps she is a stand-in for Michael to relive the murder of his sister those years before, or it could be that she represents the yin to his yang or a combination of both. The reason why is not clear, and it doesn’t need to be; the important takeaway is that he views her as special.
To illustrate this even further, and at the risk of sounding gross… Michael’s infatuation is to the point that he creates a haunted house for Laurie to venture through, set-up with the corpses of her friends for display. His knife is intended for her. This Freudian connection is symbolized further when Laurie tosses the knife away several times after believing Michael is dead. Of course, she would reject it, that’s exactly who Laurie is.
On one hand, Michael is an escaped lunatic who may be acting out his sexual desires through violence. On the other hand, he may not be Michael at all or even human for that matter, but instead a force of nature. While Hill was mainly in charge of the teenage aspects of the screenplay, Carpenter handled the evil. Just like how Laurie’s characterization is brought forth by the supporting cast, there are other characters who serve the purpose of developing Michael’s. Those characters are Dr. Loomis and, to a smaller extent, little Tommy Doyle. Loomis frequently gives monologues conveying his belief as to what Michael is, which is essentially a non-human vessel for evil, a thing lacking any sense of remorse or reason. All the while, Tommy is the boy who cries wolf to Laurie about how the bogeyman is going to come out that night.
At different points during the story Michael demonstrates what are perhaps inhuman or at least extraordinary abilities. Examples of this include being able to seemingly disappear at will, extra-human strength, and the capability of withstanding a lot of damage. Carpenter’s smart move here was to leave these moments with a possible rational explanation. The truth about Michael’s supposed supernatural abilities are left ambiguous for the viewer, which is appropriate given what we know of the character. This taps into a fear of uncertainty and elevates Michael even further.
The end of the film acts as the cherry on top and is what elevates and propels Halloween into more than a simple horror movie. Characters collide as if mandated by fate. After having their sense of security violated by Michael who has seemingly been stopped, Tommy exclaims to Laurie that, “You can’t kill the bogeyman!” As Tommy speaks the line, Michael is revealed to be watching just a few feet away, knife in hand. After another close encounter, Laurie manages to mangle Michael’s eye with a coat hanger and stabs him in the abdomen with his own knife. Laurie is badly hurt herself and through her own convictions has left herself open to attack by throwing away the weapon once more. She sends the children away and waits for the calvary to arrive.
But Michael rises again, and just as he is about to put the finishing touches on his holiday massacre, he is interrupted by Loomis, who shoots repeatedly at Michael until he is blown off of the balcony into the yard below. Laurie, with her innocence now lost, faces Loomis and speaks for the viewer by saying, “It was the bogeyman.” Just as Loomis reaffirms this to Laurie, the possibility of this explanation begins to permeate through the viewer; but he was killed just as a human would, how could this be the case? Before any sort of conclusion is reached, Michael is revealed to have vanished once more. All that is left behind are the places it has been and the streets it walked; the same homes that look like ours and the streets that are just like everyone else’s.